BERLIN — `WE want to destroy the old basis of talking to each other and construct a new way," Israeli director David Maayan, Akko Theater Company's artistic chief, told a group of Berlin theatergoers. So moved were those who packed the room by what they had seen in "Arbeit Macht Frei," that they gathered, the day after the performance, to discuss it.
Later, Mr. Maayan, who devised and directed the show, explained to me what he meant by the "old basis" of Germans and Israelis relating to one another. Like most Israelis, his view of the German people, he notes, prior to this first-time trip with his troupe, was more than four decades out of date. "When I initially arrived here," he says, "I saw Germans in a black and white way, as a result of all the films, the [Holocaust] material, and the brainwashing we get daily from childhood. If someone in Israel , for example, drives a Volkswagen, it's not considered acceptable.... Now I am up to date. I know the German people. I know this black-and-white image is a myth."
But Germans, too, Maayan discovered, are equally guilty of erroneous perceptions of Israelis. Indeed, their shared traumatic history has left both sides with distorted images.
"Germans," says Maayan, "don't know that ... there is a very real and significant difference between being a Jew and being an Israeli."
Maayan goes on to explain that most Germans' concept of Israelis is filtered through the image of the gaunt Holocaust survivor. "Their sense is the Jew that they knew from the past," he continues. "The majority of Germans have never had a chance to meet today's generation of Israelis, in their vast variety, who are very independent-minded and often very critical of a lot of things in Israeli society."
Much of the power of "Arbeit Macht Frei" lies in the ring of truth in its many contemporary comments and observations. Maayan believes this comes from his unconventional method: Rather than a detailed script, he merely gave his actors the basic sequence of events, and they provided the rest. But this is not improvisation. Every sentence uttered during the performance, insists Maayan, had to have been actually said or written by someone. The nearly five-hour show is, then, an accretion of quotes - from ea vesdropping, from newspapers, from interviews on television, from audience members during past performances - both in Israel and Germany.
Berliner Torsten Mass, drama coordinator for his city's recent Jewish Life Festival, scoured the world looking for shows; in Israel alone he viewed more than 40 productions. "But there was nothing anywhere that hit me so much or touched me so deeply as "Arbeit Macht Frei,' " he says. "The impact was like a bolt of lightning."
"Arbeit Macht Frei" is, in fact, not about the past at all. "The Holocaust is like a slide in our minds," says Maayan. "We are dealing with the lives of the people of today, who live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Both Germans and Israelis say now, `It didn't happen to us; it's history.' But what the play says is, `No, it's here,' " he emphasizes by tapping an index finger to his forehead. "It's inside us: We, today, in both countries, are the victims."
Being the "victims" means, for some Israelis, as "Arbeit Macht Frei" points out, that they feel justified in preserving their homeland at whatever cost to the Palestinians. Being the "victims," for some Germans, as the show also suggests, means there is a strong feeling of guilt that gives rise to a curious phenomenon: They blame their parents' generation for the Holocaust, which, while distancing themselves from such painful guilt, at the same time distances them from an enlightened self-awareness of ec hoes in their own attitudes and actions. Indeed, the numerous allusions in the show to prejudice, not only between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, but between Germans and foreign emigres - and even between West and East Berliners, which is notably evident right now - seemed lost on most of the Berlin theatergoers who were questioned.
"Yes, I am aware of this, and I thought, at first, it was really strange," comments Maayan, when the observation is put to him. "But it's because the Germans don't start with the present in terms of the issue of [prejudice and racism]; they start from the past, because they are not developed emotionally in that sense. They are really stuck on that guilt-complex from the Holocaust: They never open these doors. And until they open those doors, very wide, they will not grow further."